Laptop ban holds ‘potential for catastrophe’

Proposed new US rules restricting personal electronic devices (PEDs) on board aircraft between Europe and the US may have a dangerous knock-on effect for other flight safety issues, UK pilots’ association is warning.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) believes the risk arising from storing PEDs in the hold where they may catch fire without being noticed could be greater than the security risk of having them in the cabin.

The US is thought to be proposing extending their ‘device ban’ on flights from all European countries, which would mean all devices over a certain size would have to be carried in the hold rather than the cabin.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association says this clashes with current safety advice, which states devices should ideally be carried in the cabin in case of a fire.

The extension of the device ban would mean that the handful of flights affected by the current ban will increase to hundreds of flights a day, vastly increasing the risk of a fire in the hold.

These new rules could solve one problem while creating another says the UK pilots’ association.

Most modern electronic devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones are powered by lithium batteries that, when faulty or when short circuited, can cause devastating fires.

Lithium battery fires, unless caught early, can spread quickly and therefore official ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) advice is that devices should be kept in the cabin so that any potential fires can be spotted and extinguished before they enter a state known as ‘thermal runaway’ – at which point they are almost impossible to extinguish.

A fire in the hold would get out of control without being noticed and the crew would be unable to access the fire in order to deal with it; lithium batteries have been cited in the accident reports of at least two fatal accidents.

BALPA flight safety specialist Steve Landells said: “Given the risk of fire from these devices when they are damaged or they short circuit, an incident in the cabin would be spotted earlier and this would enable the crew to react quickly before any fire becomes uncontainable.

“If these devices are kept in the hold, the risk is that if a fire occurs the results can be catastrophic; indeed, there have been two crashes where lithium batteries have been cited in the accident reports.

“We don’t doubt the security threats that have led to consideration of extending the ban on devices but we urge the authorities to carefully assess the additional fire risk from storing more PEDs in the hold to ensure we’re not solving one problem by creating a worse one.”

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